OGDEN — The two multi-million-dollar buildings opened in July, and a thousand or so uniformed students arrived in late August.

In September, teachers worked with their classes to set positive momentum for the school year. The first quarter wrapped in October.

Finally, on the first day of November, Ogden Preparatory Academy held an event it had been putting off for a while. The charter school on Friday held its official ribbon cutting for the $19 million project.

“We had a few other things on our mind,” said Amie Campbell, the new principal of OPA’s elementary school and junior high, serving K-9 students. “Our first priority was getting the students in, and getting everything operating.”

Also at the ceremony was Kathy Thornburg, who served as principal since the Ogden Preparatory Academy opened a decade ago, and who retired in June.

“It’s an incredible feat,” she said, of the two buildings, located on Lincoln Avenue and about 1400 South. “And it has taken a long time.”

Thornburg was with the school as it rented and outgrew a parade of locations, including a strip mall site.

“Every year was a new adventure,” Thornburg said. “That’s why my hair is this color,” she joked, touching her salt-and-pepper locks.

The first year, enrollment was at 213. The official student count now is at 1,041, and OPA boasts some of the best test scores in the state despite drawing students largely from its inner-city location. Many students come from families with economic challenges, and for whom English is a second language.

Utah’s School Grading System recently ranked OPA as the No. 1 school in Ogden and in the top 20 percent in the state. OPA has a 46 percent minority student population and 32 percent minority staff.

OPA has recruited many of its teachers from Spanish-speaking countries, and the school is proud of its Spanish immersion program.

“We show students their culture is important to us as well as to them,” Campbell said. “With so many people able to translate and explain things, the school feels like a safe place to be. It creates an environment of huge safety, and students who feel safe can make huge gains.”

Thornburg said she believes OPA’s academic success comes from being data driven. Students’ problems mastering material are identified quickly, and addressed with additional explanations and resources, as the situation demands.

Campbell said another secret is in hiring dedicated teachers.

“We give ownership to teachers, and trust them to do their jobs,” she said.

Thornburg said during her years, any applicant who asked the pay rate on an initial teaching interview didn’t get a second meeting.

“We always wanted teachers who were in it to make a difference for the students,” she said.

Substantial parental involvement is another key to success, Thornburg said.

Community leaders and board members toured the facilities, which included multiple computer labs and lots of windows with mountain views. In the junior high building, students tested a robotic creation in a room that also accommodates baking and sewing. The buildings are on a nine-acre lot, offering room to grow and space to accommodate OPA’s many sports programs.

The project was funded by a low-interest loan from the state, the first one ever awarded to a Utah charter school, Thornburg said.

Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell praised OPA for its achievements and for the quality of its new campus. It was “highly symbolic,” he said, of the future he hopes to see for the city and its children.

Campbell said the schools have more innovative programs coming in the near future. She hopes to offer classes for parents, and turn the facilities into a education center for the community, she said. And in January, the entire student body will begin studying the principles outlined in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey.

The teachers have read the book, and nearly all support the project, Campbell said. The Jordan School District has undertaken the same study course, and is already seeing a large reduction in discipline referrals, she said.

“We will be teaching the children to build their own success,” Campbell said. “These children will grow up to be leaders. We are very excited about our future.”

Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or nvan@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.

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